Video gamers are rejoicing everywhere after learning that playing video games early in life leads to better memory when older.
The researchers at the Cognitive NeuroLab in Barcelona, Spain combined two different theories when they approached their study this past June. They focused on previous knowledge which demonstrated that cognitive enhancement could be gained through playing video games, due to the level of cognitive engagement used while playing. This can effectively train cognitive functions. They also looked into a noninvasive technique which uses bursts of theta waves to enhance brain plasticity (and therefore cognition) called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).
TMS is most effective if it is applied after training the brain for a certain skill. Animal studies have proven that when this type of stimulation is applied after learning a new skill, information is better retained by the brain. The carryover of this enhancement is usually task-dependent, but it can become more effective if the training can integrate multiple cognitive skills at once, or if the test subject is highly engaged and motivated. To achieve the carryover for TMS past just the task at hand, researchers turned to video games.
Video games provided the best example of an activity that is both engaging, motivating, and combines different levels of cognitive function. Uniquely, video games have been available and commonplace in modern society to the point where people may use them from a young age all the way through adulthood, which means that it can impact cognition easily, if not continuously. The researchers believed that if they had test participants play video games followed by TMS, their cognition, attention, general intelligence, processing speed, and visuospatial skills could be enhanced.
What the Results Show
Along with the data they collected about how motivated and engaged the participants felt throughout the process, they also made notes of how much exposure to video games they had previously to the study. They divided the participants into experienced and non-experienced groups to see if there were any correlations between cognitive changes in people who played video games at an early age (prior to age 14). They defined experienced video game users as playing for more than 3 hours per week for at least 1 year.
The researchers also had them complete cognitive testing before, after, and 15 days after the completion of the study. Participants played 90 minutes of Super Mario 64 for 10 consecutive daily sessions. Half of the participants received actual TMS while the other was placed in a control group who were seemingly connected to the same equipment, but one of the magnetic coils was placed at an angle that prevented the theta wave bursts from actually reaching the cerebral cortex.
The participants who had played video games in their youth had the most significant changes with improved working memory compared to those who had not played in their early life. Inhibitory control, a cognitive function associated with being able to keep oneself from acting in favor of a better or more appropriate choice, was most improved in people who had not played video games.
The researchers agreed that there was no improvement in cognition from TMS alone, and they suspect that the experience of gamers vs. non-gamers led to different brain states while playing the game. This could have affected the brain state to a point where TMS was not useful. Experienced gamers scored better on the cognitive tests after receiving TMS than the control group or the non-gamer group who had also received TMS.
What Does This Mean for You?
If you play video games, especially before the age of 14, you’re engaging several different cognitive functions while solving puzzles, practicing planning and exploring, and identifying and following through with goals. Playing Super Mario 64 has been shown to cause structural changes to the brain in areas that correspond with spatial memory, fine motor skills, and executive function.
If you already have a healthy mind, this study suggests that cognitive enhancement will be slightly less pronounced than if you have an aging mind with more room for improvement.
Hooking yourself up to transcranial magnetic stimulation in order to achieve these effects…maybe not. For now, it is good to see evidence of some positive changes coming from video games.
Marc Palaus, Raquel Viejo-Sobera, Diego Redolar-Ripoll, Elena M. Marrón. Cognitive Enhancement via Neuromodulation and Video Games: Synergistic Effects? Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2020; 14 DOI: 10.3389/fnhum.2020.00235